New York’s ‘Bowl Hashanah’ melds the concert and synagogue experience into a new community
NEW YORK – For far too many Jews, Rosh Hashanah elicits less than fond memories of endless prayer services led by a cantor, a sermon by an often uninspiring rabbi and a cavernous synagogue. Thanks to some innovative rabbis and musicians, a decidedly unorthodox way of marking the Jewish New Year has taken hold in the New York area. Welcome to Bowl Hashanah.
The spiritual celebration, which is taking place on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at New York’s famed Brooklyn Bowl music venue and bowling alley, is entering its seventh year of providing a musical experience that features some of the better-known traditional prayers alongside accessible explanations and meditations. The holiday experience will also include Torah reading, shofar blowing, tashlich and a communal vegetarian meal.
The true magic is in the music, with carefully selected and coordinated musical sets throughout the morning and during lunch. The mainstays of the event are the organization Because Jewish and Relix Magazine, long associated with the Grateful Dead and the jam band scene.
The event is being led by Rabbi Daniel Brenner and musical director and trumpeter Jordan McLean of the musical group Antibalas.
“I’ve always loved my suburban synagogue, and still attend services there,” said Mike Greenhaus, editor of Relix Magazine, as he recounted Bowl Hashanah’s evolution. In 2012, he and his then-girlfriend (now wife) were looking for something a little closer to home in New York City. As they were exploring options, they came across Rabbi Dan Ain, who was leading services for the first time at 92YTribeca, a now-closed Manhattan performance space and community center.
“He was leading with Jeremiah Lockwood, who I was already a fan of through his band the Sway Machinery, and his work with the members of Antibalas,” Greenhaus recounted. “We went to his Erev Rosh Hashanah service and were immediately stuck by both their mix of authentic, traditional holiday prayer and modern, equally authentic music, and how the entire service felt tied to our daily lives as 20/30-something New Yorkers working in media and music. It felt, for, the first time, that we had found our spiritual congregation.”
After a few years at 92Y, the Rosh Hashanah experience moved in 2015 to what Greenhaus described as “the perfect venue” – Brooklyn Bowl.
“I know that I wasn’t the only one could really feel that they were having a proudly religious experience alongside the close-knit music community that has been part of my New York family for decades,” Greenhaus said. “Interestingly, everyone also seemed to assume the nooks and crannies they felt comfortable with at a concert. People who like to ride the rail were seated up front. People who like to hover in the back by the bar were huddled in the same place. People who usually watch in the bowling lanes congregated in that space.
“Brooklyn Bowl always felt more like a club house – a gathering place, much like a church or synagogue – than a traditional venue,” he added.
Greenhaus stressed that the expansion of the event couldn’t have succeeded without the involvement of the Brooklyn Bowl’s owner Peter Shapiro, a legend- like figure in the Grateful Dead world who has been instrumental in the career of the post-Dead configuration Dead & Company.
Shapiro, who grew up at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, was raised with deep connections to the Jewish community. His father, Daniel, was president of New York’s Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and a founder of the Jewish Community Relations Council. His grandfather, Ezra, was a leader in Zionist organizations for more than 50 years: he served as world chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and was one of 19 American Jews summoned by David Ben-Gurion in 1945 to organize American support for the Hagana. He eventually made aliyah.
Shapiro has long noticed that “these venues, and in particular the Brooklyn Bowl, are places of worship… very spiritual places.” He recalls his experience at Wetlands, the Manhattan nightclub he purchased in 1996. “In 48 hours at Wetlands, you would see different- looking people, all looking for the same thing, but going about it in a different way.”
Shapiro felt the Brooklyn Bowl would be the perfect venue for Bowl Hashanah.
“It had the space and layout – the stage is like a bimah,” Shapiro said. “The specs of the Brooklyn Bowl are of at the highest level of audio – the wood has been acoustically treated – and it has been good for people like Robert Plant and Adele.”
The venue is also used for such Jewish-themed events as the Friday Night Jam speaking series, which discusses the connection between music and spirituality across styles and religious backgrounds.
Ain, who relocated to San Francisco in 2018, and now serves as rabbi of a Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in the Richmond District, recounts the history of the Bowl Hashanah prayer experience. He praises his longtime collaborator at Bowl Hashanah, Jeremiah Lockwood, the front man for The Sway Machinery.
“I was looking for a different type of prayer leader for my downtown services, one who could speak to a new generation while at the same time, recall an older experience that many of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century never truly got to experience or appreciate,” Ain said. “I prayed for such a person – who could combine the new and the old – and who had the chops to do both. That’s when Jeremiah and I met. And we’ve worked together every year since.”
Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who will lead this year’s High Holiday services with Antibalas cofounder Jordan McLean, reports that he will “frame the experience, tell stories about the history of the music, and let the music be a vehicle for us spiritually—to let the music evoke emotions.”
Brenner views Bowl HaShanah “not as much a service as a celebration of the holiday,” though, he adds, “that is not to say I won’t open up the door to connection with the Divine and the cosmic.”